President Robert Mugabe is soaking up more endorsement from his regional allies after Zimbabwe was elected head of the Africa chapter of the United Nation’s tourism body this week.
Just a week after he was inaugurated for a new term after elections his opponents say he rigged, Mugabe, who has been hungry for international endorsement, revelled in his unlikely new role as an “ambassador of tourism”.
At a meeting in Livingstone, Zambia, Zimbabwe was elected to head the Africa commission of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) until 2015. Zimbabwe won the backing of all African countries at the meeting.
After co-hosting the summit Zimbabwe will now also be co-president, with Zambia, of the UNWTO itself for the next two years.
Mugabe’s placement at the helm of a tourism body is ironic, as his rule over the past decade has decimated a tourism industry that was once the country’s second-largest earner of foreign currency.
The UN’s decision to allow Zimbabwe to co-host the event has angered rights campaigners.
Rights group UN Watch expressed “grave disappointment” at the UN’s decision, saying it was a “disgraceful show of support and a terribly timed award of false legitimacy for a brutal, corrupt and authoritarian regime”.
“Amid reports of election rigging and continuing human-rights abuses Zimbabwe is the last country that should be legitimised by a UN summit of any kind,” said Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, which monitors the UN’s observance of democracy.
“The notion that the UN should spin this country as a lovely tourist destination is, frankly, sickening,” Neuer said.
But UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai said the body had no regrets about awarding the event to Zimbabwe.
“The decision was correct, we do not regret it,” Rifai said.
“Those who choose to criticise us must go into the streets in Victoria Falls and Livingstone and experience the impact themselves.”
The general assembly was a huge success, with record attendance and efficient organisation. It boosted Mugabe, who rubbed detractors’ noses in it.
Mugabe hosts dinner guests
“President Sata [of Zambia] and I have since signed the golden book of tourism [signed by UNWTO leaders], thus becoming ambassadors for global tourism, never mind the chagrin of some of our detractors over this matter,” he said
In the gardens of the colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel on Sunday, Mugabe hosted more than a thousand dinner guests, regaling them with odes to the beauty of Africa and urging fellow African nations to open up their borders.
Zimbabwe was on its way back to international acceptance after years of isolation, he told the gathering.
The economic and political crisis, which he once again blamed on the West, had prevented Zimbabwe from participating in international bodies such as the UNWTO, he said.
But the formation of the unity government had “led to the somewhat softening of the stance against us on the part of our political and economic detractors”.
Now, he said, the country’s co-hosting of the UNWTO general assembly and its election to head the body’s Africa chapter showed that it was finally back where it belonged.
Committed to the values of the UN
Zimbabwe, he said, remained committed to the values of the UN, “not withstanding our adversity to the hegemonic tendencies of some of the world’s economic and military super-powers who dominate the organisation”.
Mugabe is calling for more open borders, saying Africa will not increase its share of global tourist arrivals if it does not promote intra-African tourism.
Seizing on his new role as “tourism ambassador”, Mugabe had guests eating out of his hand, waxing lyrical about Africa’s unique natural wonders.
“Here you will every morning wake up to the chirping of our birds and the aura of the African sun, and at the end of each day, go to sleep under the star-filled African sky,” he said, to loud cheers from the guests.